The country where time stopped…
I heard a lot about Cuba, the scenery that I saw in pictures also made me interested, so this became my next destination. I went to Cuba with my father, it was a 14-day trip and we spent it fully. We brought the plane tickets through an agency but the rest we did on our own.
The Real Cuba
We didn’t want to be shown just one side of Cuba, living in hotels with a set program through a holiday agency – we wanted to get to know the real Cuba.
We planned where we were going to stay, where we would like to go, what we should go and see and what we wanted to see, because this wasn’t always the same. We were both very excited for the trip, we were always talking about it, and we knew it was going to be a real father and daughter trip.
The route was as follows:
Havana- Vinales- Cienfuegos- Trinidad- Vadero- Havana. We had pre booked our tickets for everything including where we were going to stay. We didn’t check in any luggage to the plan it was all carry on bags. My dad’s luggage was 3.5 kg in total, that’s all he needed for the unknown.
My bag – being a woman- was a bit bigger, I needed the space for the summer clothes, shoes, the Hungarian flag, the travel books and a lot of other things.
Our plane left from Budapest it went to Turkey and then straight to Cuba. Both my father and I love flying so the flight went very quick. It’s interesting how positive a flight can be, you have a lot of time to think, rest, to think about yourself. In such a long haul flight you don’t have the usual rushing of shorter flights, it is just you.
In more detail
They say that travelling is not about what you go and see but what you experience while doing it. This is how my dad and I began our adventure on the 17th of September 2017 in Cuba- officially the Republic of Cuba in the Caribbean.
We landed in the morning in Havana at the Jose Marti airport and we were welcomed with beautiful summer weather. We were greeted by very elegantly dressed crew and everyone was very kind. I find the Cuban people beautiful, their dark eyes, hair and skin. The airport itself is not too big; you can get through security fairly quickly.
Since we only had euros and dollars on us, the first order of business was to exchange some money. There are two types of currency in Cuba. The first is the peso convertible (CUC), this is the currency tourists’ use but the locals can use it as well. The locals have a different currency called the pesos nacionale. We used the exchanges at the airport and specific exchanges because the hotels were much more expensive on the conversion. At every conversion they asked us for our passports, there was also heavy security at the exchanges. The taxi ride was about 15 CUC the equivalent to about 15 Euros. The roads were multi lanes leading into the Centre of Havana from the airport. We talked with the taxi driver, and took in the beautiful scenery, with the sun shinning, the palm trees dazzling in the distance and the many coloured vintage cars of Cuba lighting up the streets.
We spent the first two days in Havana in a simple hotel where the employees were very helpful, and provided us with a lot of useful information. One of the most important was that if we wanted to use the internet we would need to buy a top up card and also that in Cuba you can only use the internet in specific places. These are usually hotels, parks, bars or at the Cuban telecommunications center. If you run out of minutes you must buy a new top up card. Many people came to the outside area of the hotel because the signal for the Internet reached until there. Another very helpful thing was that if we do plan on seeing more of Cuba that we have a look at the bus times well in advance to make sure we have space. I did not realise the significance of this information until much later. After we checked into the hotel, and freshened up we went to a local market.
The famous market
You should imagine a round square, which is full of tables and people. You can buy everything from fruit and vegetables to bread and meat. I was already familiar with some of the fruits from my time in Columbia, which my dad wasn’t, so I could explain to him what they are like and what people use them for. The fruits were lining up after one and other, bananas, papaya, melons, beans, onion, coconuts and different types of potatoes. The market is a market in every sense of the word, full of people, noise, chatter and laughter. We were sticking out a bit, not only for our appearance but that we were also very excited to be in a Cuban market. My dad really wanted to check out the meat section of the market. It was around 8 meters wide, where the meats, mainly pork, were served to the customers after dangling in front of them. After more walking we entered into a huge closed off hall where they sold more ingredients, sugar, salt, oil, eggs and there was also huge bags of flour and rice. I had never before seen flour sold in such way it was very interesting. The prices were written on a big plaque in crayons, so incase of a change in price, it could easily be changed. Bread was sold out of a huge bag. It was a great experience for both of us.
The streets of Cuba
Once we exited the market we found ourselves walking on the streets of the capital where we realised that even things such as cutting the grass are done in a different way. I’m sure they must have lawnmowers but we saw people using machetes to cut the grass in front of the house, also there were chickens with their baby chicks just running about in front of the house. You don’t see things like that in Hungary, especially not in the capital. After this we wanted to walk towards the beach past the famous old parts of Havanna but the local police stopped us as the Hurricane has made the area unsafe. Due to the Hurricane the usual sight seeing buses were also not running, so we had no choice but the taxi. We usually traveled with a retro Lada taxi, as it was cheap, my dad really liked it. All the taxi drivers were very kind and helpful, they even told us personal stories about themselves.
Since we only spent two days in Havanna we tried to see as much of it as possible. We were both really interested in Old Havana so we spent most of our time there. It’s fairly easy to see Old Havana; one street leads to the next, with a good map you can’t get lost. We also had a small travel book about Cuba, which helped with everything we didn’t need anything else. The Old part of town is a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site, with good reason.
Places to see in Old Havana
Cathedral- Cathedral de San Cristobal
I really liked the cathedral and it’s grounds, it had a real nice atmosphere and the asymmetric towers make the building very special. There are plenty of restaurants and bars at the nearby square where you can spend time and just admire the scenery. There are plenty of women dressed in traditional Cuban dresses, selling souvenirs and for money you can also take pictures of them. A lot of them were smoking huge cigars, which for me was a surprise, but for them it was completely natural.
This is one of Havana’s most iconic buildings it’s beautiful. They were restoring it while we were there so we couldn’t see it from the inside but it was still an amazing sight.
Plaza de Vieja
This square is renovated, with the buildings painted in vibrant colours; there are plenty of restaurants and cafes within the square, where we had the pleasure of listening to real Cuban music numerous times. You order yourself a cold mojito or a pina collada, enjoy the music and feel that nothing else is missing. This was one of my favourite things to do in Cuba, there and then time stopped.
Havana Club Rum Museum
Rum is part of the everyday life in Cuba, it is closely related to its culture.
Cuban rum started in the 16th century when the locals turned the juices of sugarcane into an alcoholic drink. Before going into the museum we had an orange cocktail made with juices of sugar cane, with rum of course. In the museum there is a gigantic model explaining the way rum is produced, all the way from the growing of the sugar cane, the gathering of it, the transportation, to the production in the factory. We then also took part in a rum tasting session. The last hall was filled with hundreds of bottles of rum, some hundreds of years old.
The places of Hemingway
La Bodeguita de Medio
Hemingway lived in Cuba from the 1930’s all the way till 1960.
Cuba’s most famous cocktail is the mojito, which we obviously tasted. We also wrote our names on the La Bodeguita del Medio wall. The mojito is a tasty refreshing drink, personally I prefer it without rum, but the original formula is as follows:
– Sparkling water
– Lemon Juice
The Calle Obispo is one of the most famous streets in Cuba, only pedestrians can use it and it is full of restaurants, shops, museums, and old pharmacies. Most of the restaurants charge a hefty fee but luckily we found a place where we could eat quite cheaply with the locals. I can’t really tell you about any traditional Cuban foods. What are frequent is the big portions of rice some type of meat usually (pork, beef, chicken or fish), beans or beans with rice and salad. We also visited the Plaza de Armas, O’Reily street, Plaza de Revolucion, a train station… and I could go on. When we go too tired to walk that is when we decided to use the “bicycle taxi”- which took us around the city. After a long day we took a cocotaxi home. This is another one of the cheaper forms of transportation, it is a yellow motorbike type taxi. Upon getting back to the hotel we greeted the staff and told them about our day, and then suddenly I remembered their warning about the buses and getting a ticket in advance. Since we planned most of our trip in Hungary, I was relaxed about our situation. I thought I would turn up and buy a ticket to Vinales on the day. In reality however… We needed to travel to Vinales in two days, so I sat down at the computer and using my top up cards details I went onto the bus travels website. When I got to the booking part the website told me that the next available bus to Vinales would be in two weeks. I read it again, the next available bus to Vinales would be in two weeks… I started to panic a little bit at this stage.
In two weeks we won’t even be in Cuba. My God!
I turned to the hotel staff for help.
They suggested that we go to the bus station and look for the “Taxi Collectivo” which basically means a taxi sharing company. According to the hotel staff they were trustworthy. The next morning following our breakfast we headed straight for the bus station. We didn’t even need to look for a taxi driver, they were offering their services before we got into the bus station. Before we could snap our fingers we had agreed on the details. On the same day my dad and I once again headed to Old Havanna. This time we were much more confident when dealing with the locals such as making friends and bartering the prices down. That day we were had lunch in one of the old parts of town. I had baked banana, avocado, rice, cucumber and fruits, while my dad had chicken and fish accompanied by two mojitos. I spoke a lot of Spanish with people and by the end of the day my dad knew more and more as well, even if it was only a few words. It is a great treasure, being able to speak different languages, they simply open new worlds and opportunities. We got really tired during the day, despite having a few rests in different bars it was a lot of walking, we tried to make the most of our time in Havanna. Havanna is a real treasure, with beautiful buildings, lovely parks, with a vibrant population and what I feel is important to point out is that the people were very kind and helpful.
On the third day following breakfast, we packed our bags and we were ready to travel to Vinales. The taxi was arranged for 8:00 in the morning so we were up bright and early. Due to a technical problem the taxi didn’t arrive until 8:40. The taxi was an amazing blue and white 1953 Chevrolet. We put our stuff in and got in the front as there were already two young german girls in the back seats. What a small world! The car was wonderful! My dad was in amazement the whole time. With the car being a 1953 model it was amazing that this car was in good condition and it made money for its owner. Its true that there was no dashboard with the smart phone replacing that. On the motorway our biggest speed was 138 Kph. We couldn’t really speak with the girls in the back as the car was quite loud and at times you could feel the engine getting hot underneath our feet. My dad really enjoyed it. The motorway had several lanes, sometimes we saw people on horseback and others with a carriage pulled by a horse. There were several other Taxi Collectivo cars on the motorway, we soon realised it is quite a serious business in Cuba and that people make good money form it. There are times when due to the distance of the journey drivers will split the ride between them, this happend to us when we went to Cienfuesgo. The journey was spent with listening to music and sightseeing.
My favourite place
We arrived in Viñales early in the afternoon, and from the first moment it entertained our hearts – imagine a small friendly town, each house is a different colour
– There are green, red, blue, pink-houses of all kinds, with restaurants and bars.
Viñales is located in the western part of the country – in the province of Pinar del Río, this beautiful place is full of farm lands, tobacco plantations, rock formations and caves. The landscape is quite amazing – the land is red – I could call it the island of tranquillity. It’s a place you usually see in the Latin American series. We spent most of our days spending time visiting tobacco and coffee plantations – a 3.5 hour horseback riding tour and a full-day bicycle tour. The horseback tour was something divine – we did not have to be a big jockey and we went through fairy-tale landscapes. I laughed when they said that these horses were “half automats”, but they really were- they went along the dirt roads, streams, and banana plantations without any instruction from us. Our first stop was on a tobacco plantation, they introduced us into an open hall where the tools and supplies of tobacco were waiting for us. A very polite young man told us about tobacco farming and then we made ourselves cigars, which we then smoked. Neither of us smoke, but since we were there we tried it. The man who made our cigar was clearly an expert as it did not take him very long to make our cigars. The second stop was a coffee plantation where the story of coffee was told from shrubbery to coffee and then tasting. Coffee is a tropical plant, it has hundreds of species in the world, but only two of them are used for drinking coffee: Arab coffee and robusta. Arabica is the most common type, which accounts for 75% of the coffee marketed in world trade. In nine months, the crop is harvested by hand, this is so only the best beans are added to the coffee making process.
The look of the robusta makes it easy to distinguish it from arabica because the robusta beans are smaller and rounded, and in the middle of the bean there is a gap. The yellowish-colored fruit ripening time is 10-11 months, then harvested. Finally at the end of the horseriding tour we ended up at a freshwater lake where we ate and admired the landscape and then headed home. In the evening, Marco, the son of our host and his girlfriend offered to take me to out, so I dove into the night. The next day we had a full day bike ride with my dad – on a bicycle for two people – we had plenty of time to talk to each other
You’re in one direction, you’re alone – a great opportunity to talk. My dad hadn’t rode a bicycle for about 30 years and then he rode for about 20 kilometers, this makes me think he won’t ride a bicycle for another 30 years. We looked at the Cueva del Indio, the Indian cave where we rode, and then went to several places. We found a banana plantation, with banana as far as the eye could see. You don’t really have anything like that in Hungary so we took pictures and examined it properly. It is so incredible that for someone it is completely natural and is part of his everyday life, while other person is amazed and is taking pictures and happy to be there. The landscape was incredible, with lively green colour everywhere, trees, shrubs, vegetation and animals surrounded by fresh air. Here I talked to our hosts, told about their Cuban life, about work, about education, about the great issues of life. It was interesting that Marco, who I mentioned above, was a doctor. In Hungary if you want to be a doctor you have to take a test in chemistry, biology, mathematics and physics. In Cuba however the subject of the admission is Cuba’s history.
In Cuba health, education, burial are free and if you own a house, you do not have to pay tax on the house, and there is a basic amount of food that you get for free from the state on a monthly basis. The majority of our conversations were these topics. It was very interesting.
Our third stop was Cienfuegos. I thought we were going straight from Viñales to Cienfuegos, but realised that due to the long distance we had to go back to Havana first and only then could we get to this city. Cienfuegos is 250 km away from the capital, the city is known as the “Southern Pearl” today a World Heritage Site. Two colletive taxis took us to this beautiful place, and although we were tired after the long journey, we headed out. We spent most of our time that day in the José Marti Park and we walked along the Prado walkway. Cienfuegos has remained memorable because of the hospitality of our hosts, we talked a lot here with them and we got to know we Cuba from a different perspective and hospitality was a top class. Our host opened a bottle of rum for us that night, we sat on the terrace and exchanged thoughts. Today was the first time we saw a high school in Cuba, but what was interesting was how many students around the high school and how elegant they were in their uniforms. There is compulsory schooling and if one parent does not fulfill this obligation, he or she is sentenced to imprisonment.
Since we had another day to spend here we decided to check out Trinidad 80km way, being content with our time in Cienfuegos. We took a bus to Trinidad and we were surprised that we had to check in at the bus stop to get on the vehicle. Our ticket was printed on paper that was already used, so we could make out a few details of previous emails at the back of our ticket. During the journey we admired the scenery, talked and enjoyed the landscape, as we passed before the Escambray Mountains. Trinidad is a truly glamorous city. On this day we walked a lot, because the more we went up the hill, the more we saw of the city. There are old cobbled streets that restrict traffic a bit, making it difficult for cyclists and riders – but it’s worth it. The old part of town is beautiful, full of museums, craft shops and old buildings that are eye-catching. We spent a lot of time in handicraft shops and street vendors, we saw beautiful folk costumes, jewels, stones, fans, souvenirs, and really walked a lot without purpose. Virtually every street was different. Wi-fi here as well in the parks, so we could communicate with people at home. I think it was the hardest day for my dad, we hiked a lot and he got the most tired. We decided to climb the lookout, which was 5 km from the city. As we walked up, we met many people who, interestingly, always asked for a small item – most of all they asked us if we brought any soap or anything else we could give them. Unfortunately we could not give anything but a good word. On reaching the top of the mountain, a man guided us and told about Trinidad’s life history, industry and agriculture. He told me that there were a lot of sugar trees here before, and that was why Trinidad had the flower age. And for her kindness, she asked us some CUCs.
In the evening we returned to Cienfuegos, and since we were really tired, we had dinner and rested.
Our fifth stop was near the end of our journey, to Varadero, which is today the largest resort center in Cuba. Varadero is full of bars, fast food restaurants, hotels, a long peninsula, full of tourists. Personally, I could describe it as a c. 20 km long white sandy beach, blue sky, crystal clear water. It was good that we just had to relax and rest here. We spent three days here, which was very busy. The first day spent exploring the island, swimming, sunbathing and searching through the offers of the city. Walking on one of the shores that day we met a fisherman who pulled smaller fish out of the sea. We went closer and asked if we could join, and he had already given us the string. He told me that he had just come home from work, rode his bike to the deck, took out his simple fishing equipment, twine, hook, a little bait, and started fishing. He told me that he was also dealing in tourism, like so many others in Cuba. We were interested in his services and prices. It turned out that we should have explored more, because at the price we got the accommodation, he also gave breakfast and dinner. That’s how we decided that if we ever come to Varadero again we will be staying with him and we will be offering him to anyone that asks. Then, after the fishing experience, we walked down to the beach and just admired the sea. The sand was very soft, pleasant, silky, and the water was really warm and relaxing. We took a lot of pictures together, with Hungarian flag. The next day we visited a crocodile farm where we also went by a collective taxi and made friends with the driver during the trip. We went in a green Chevrolet an old but well-maintained car to around 60 km away from Varadero. I’ve never been to a crocodile farm; it was a very interesting experience. We saw several crocodile species here in different sizes and sexes. The farm was surrounded by thick green vegetation. Surprisingly, the crocodiles were mostly fed with skin and we saw around a hundred crocodiles. We were told how they killed the crocodiles, I have never heard of it in such detail in my life, so it was strange for me to keep them for their meat. After the farm we headed home, we passed beside an orange plantation, where we stopped, we did a bigger walk, and in several areas people were doing agricultural activities with older machine, which we admired for a few minutes. In the evening we went back to the beach, relaxed, swam, then bought the tickets for our next day program on Cayo Blanco Island. Early in the morning we had to get on a bus in a certain place, picking up the passengers around the island and landing at the end station, from where we went on to the island with a tourist boat. A very nice smiling, cheerful, good-humored Cuban boy who had all the information we needed before the trip started repeating the basic information in English, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian. If we have any problems, we can contact him with confidence, tell the program what to expect on the day, and also tell us about the rules to be followed on the ship. There was unlimited drinking on the boat, and there was a very good mood, and it was surprising how many nationalities had gathered on that small boat. The journey was approximately one hour long and halted at half waypoint so we could scuba dive.Everyone got diving glasses and diving pipes, and then we could swim in the open sea for half an hour.
There was a net stretched out at the nose of the ship, and it was as if we were on a huge hammock. It was a decisive experience for my trip. After we arrived on the island, we arrived on a soft, white sandy beach, but here, due to the recent hurricanes, there were traces left behind, which had not yet been completely cleared away, here I mean debris, landed vegetation and a multitude of shells. We had a whole day program here on the island, walked, sunbathed, bathed in the sea and participated in a crab style running race. At one o’clock we ate lunch, which was a real interesting experience on my part – pasta abundantly, rice, crabs, fish, shellfish served in all quantities and with many types of salads. Here I had the opportunity to talk more to the person who ran the trip, in who I met a reel deep feeling person. It was impressive that he spoke four or five languages easily, three of them perfectly. I asked him where he was taught, and he said that he knew very early in school that languages were very important because it allowed him the opportunity to travel. He told me about how he loves his job and he shared a few personal experiences. It is a disadvantage of his work that there are dead seasons in Cuba when he can not work as much as he wants, so unfortunately he can not earn enough money. I talked for about an hour with him, it was good to see Cuba from his point of view. Unfortunately, this day was fast and we started back to Varadero at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Our last day was spent on the island, on the beach. On the beach where we were that day, there were two other people besides us. It was beautiful.
Varadero was about relaxation, about our two-week Cuba tour.
The last two days of our trip were repeated in Havana, and we tried to go to places that had not seen in the beginning. We went to the famous Coppelia Ice Cream Park, which is in the eye of Hotel Habana Libre. There was a very long queue in front of the ice cream shop and there was a very large selection of ice creams. We could choose from 10 to 20 kinds of ice creams, so we got in the queue. All of a sudden we were told that we cannot queue here that this was the locals ate. Nothing like this happened to us before but if this is the procedure than fair enough. The security guards escorted us to another stairway, said we can get ice cream here. There were only three types of ice cream, vanilla, strawberries and vanilla chocolates, so we were sorry we could not stand in the other row. I don’t really fancy these flavours to be honest. After the ice cream we bought the gifts for our loved ones and had one last meal at Calle Obispo, walked around the old town, went to the Chinese Quarter, had our last trip with the Coco Taxi, the Lada, we bid farewell to the museums, and buildings.
Our plane left back to Hungary on September 29, Cuba – Venezuela-Turkey-Hungary.
Cuba was a real pleasure, just because I could share this experience with my dad and that’s just ours.
With heartbreak, but we headed home.
Venezuela was very interesting, this is where passengers from Europe got off and some who got on in Cuba also got off. We once again got to witness the complicated logistics of an international long haul flights. It’s a shame we couldn’t see much of Venezuela but I hope to return there properly one day.
The journey home was spent with resting and watching movies while we comprehended the wonderful experiences that happened with us.
The journey back is always quicker.